Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Planning the Irrigation Leader Tour of New Zealand

Irrigation Leader’s recent tour of New Zealand was planned in part by Mel Brooks, the chief executive officer (CEO) of MHV Water, New Zealand’s largest irrigation scheme. MHV Water provides water to over 200 farmer-shareholders on the fertile Canterbury Plains area of New Zealand’s South Island. In this interview, Mel explains how she selected tour locations that would showcase New Zealand’s irrigation industry, culture, and people.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about yourself and your position at MHV Water.

Mel Brooks: I’m the CEO of MHV Water Limited, a farmer-owned irrigation district in the Mid Canterbury region of New Zealand that delivers water to over 130,000 acres of highly productive land. We are the largest irrigation scheme in New Zealand, and as well as owning the infrastructure that delivers the water, we manage environmental compliance for our farmers.

Irrigation Leader: You helped design the itinerary for Irrigation Leader’s recent tour of the South Island of New Zealand. Can you tell us how you chose locations for the tour?

Mel Brooks: A couple of years ago, I attended an Irrigation NZ tour of Colorado and Nebraska, which was supported by Irrigation Leader, and really enjoyed seeing a variety of irrigation infrastructure and farm systems, learning about research and innovation, and especially meeting the people, so I wanted to ensure that those components were part of the tour. The hardest part of planning a tour of this nature is prioritizing what to see, because there is so much and there are only so many hours in the day. Finding the balance of farm systems, infrastructure, and current innovations to stimulate discussion; limiting the hours on the bus in any given day; and building in time to make connections with New Zealanders throughout the trip were critical.

Kiwis (New Zealanders) are also really proud of our country, so I obviously needed to include a chance to discover the beauty of New Zealand and see some spots that are a little farther off the beaten track.

Children play with water wheels, chutes, and Archimedes' screws at the Margaret Mahy playground in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Irrigation Leader: Were you looking for things that would be different from what U.S. irrigators would be used to, somewhat similar, or a mix of the two?

Mel Brooks: The tour aimed to show a breadth of different practices and to highlight some of the different ways in which we operate. Often, even where there are similarities, there are also slightly different ways of doing things because of the way our farm systems or infrastructure have evolved. The aim for was for those differences to stimulate discussion and perhaps provide inspiration for a change that the tour participants could make in their own businesses.

Irrigation Leader: What should our readers know about irrigation in New Zealand?

Mel Brooks: New Zealand receives over 492 million acrefeet of rainfall a year, but because of where and when that water falls, our geography, and the nature of our soils, the majority of the country remains exposed to drought. In order to provide resilience for high-value crops, pasture, horticulture, viticulture, and farming in general, we are incredibly reliant on irrigation.

Irrigation Leader: Tell us about the visit to a Māori community. Was the community welcoming and interested in hosting foreign visitors?

Mel Brooks: We work collaboratively with our local Rūnanga, Arowhenua, which is part of Ngāi Tahu, the main iwi, or tribe, in the South Island. When I came into my role 3 years ago, I prioritized building relationships with Arowhenua because I felt that it was critically important that we be able to work together to achieve shared goals. We both needed to take the time to understand each other so that when we’re making decisions, we’re giving respect to the different viewpoints around the room. We don’t always agree on initiatives or on how to accomplish specific goals, but we are more or less aligned in our long-term aims. The Kaumatua (elders) at Arowhenua were extremely welcoming and also keen to share how beneficial for the wider community it can be when all parties or stakeholders in a community work together and respect one another’s perspectives.

Irrigation Leader: Which stops seemed to be most interesting to the tour group?

Mel Brooks: It was interesting to see the things that really stimulated people. We spent the first day of our tour looking around Christchurch, more to acclimatize than anything else, and a number of people were really interested in our Margaret Mahy playground. The playground was designed by children after the earthquake and was built to bring people back into the central city and give our children something fun to do when much of their world was in disarray. Because it was designed by kids, it’s a little bit crazy, with lots of interactive fun and water features. There is a network of channels, gates, hand pumps, Archimedes’ screws, and waterfalls that the children can play with. It’s a great way to help children to understand how water can be moved and how the basic principles apply. The deer milking was also much discussed, as were the gravity-fed ponds and dams, and the automation and some of the software we use, although it is difficult to show just how much benefit that provides us. One of the other comments that was made was that it was great that I seemed to know everyone. I didn’t know everyone, but that’s the nature of a lot of people in New Zealand.

We made a few changes to the itinerary as we went. It was a shame that we couldn’t get to an arable farm, to another district, or to the bioreactors, but the reality is that there’s only a certain amount of time in any given trip and I wanted to have a balance of work, people, and culture, as well as having the chance to enjoy the scenery. If we’d had another week, we could have easily filled it up.

Irrigation Leader: What were your observations of the tour group?

Mel Brooks: It was a lot of fun. We have a Māori saying here in New Zealand, “What’s the most important thing in the world? It is the people, the people, the people.” What made this group really special was the people. I thoroughly enjoyed the banter, the laughter, and the learning. It was an educational trip, but also a really fun trip. The jet boat ride, which I was a wee bit apprehensive about, was absolutely loved, and the optional sunrise walk up Conical Hill in Hanmer was far more popular than I expected. The participants were open to new experiences and interested in learning.

Irrigation Leader: If you end up designing another tour a couple of years down the line, is there anything you think you might add to it?

Mel Brooks: I would definitely love to take a group south through Canterbury to Northern and Central Otago, where there is old gold mining infrastructure and a fascinating network of hydroelectric dams. I would then suggest flying out of Queenstown and finishing the trip in the Northern part of the North Island so that the group could see the contrast.

I really enjoyed the experience of hosting the tour and getting the opportunity to reconnect with people I had met on past travels and to meet new people, all of whom are involved in the same industry. None of us has a monopoly on good ideas, so having the opportunity to build those relationships and share perspectives was hugely beneficial. I look forward to continuing to connect and to looking for opportunities for our wider teams and businesses in the future, and to be honest, I haven’t laughed so much in years!

Mel Brooks is the CEO of MHV Water. She can be reached at mel@mhvwater.nz.